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The Parks Decision

A Determined Chief Vows to Fight for Job

April 10, 2002|JILL LEOVY and DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Nothing about Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks ever suggested he would accept the Police Commission ouster and simply walk away. He is, in a word, headstrong--and always has been.

He is so single-minded he used to study for advancement tests by holing up in vacant apartments. He once used a camper shell parked outside his home, reading by flashlight.

"It was like he was in prison," his wife, Bobbie, later recalled.

So on Tuesday, when commissioners voted to end his five-year tenure as police chief, Parks responded in character, vowing to fight the action to the end. Next stop will be a hearing before the Los Angeles City Council. Should he fail there, Parks promised to continue reporting for duty until the very last day of his term--Aug. 12.

"I have only one plan at this time," Parks said, moments after Tuesday's 4-1 vote. "And that is to get reappointed as chief of police of the city of Los Angeles."

Parks faced reporters with his head high, his voice eloquent and clear, showing the apparent pride and resolve of a man who has built his life--and his career--around those two very traits.

He also demonstrated the rigidness that critics have cited as a major cause of his downfall. Doggedly defending his track record, lashing out at commissioners and others for "politicizing" the selection process, he painted himself as a reformer and man of principle who simply ran out of time in trying to bring the massive Los Angeles Police Department into line.

In an interview with The Times, he acknowledged the strain of the afternoon's events. Asked whether the day had been difficult, Parks said: "They are all difficult, but this is one of the more difficult."

Of the police morale problems cited by commissioners as a reason for denying him another term, Parks said: "It is not the job of the chief of police [to look after] everyone's individual morale. They have some responsibility to this community . . . to have a mind-set of service."

Of his reputation for inflexibility, Parks said: "I am inflexible about corrupt officers, about officers who do not tell the truth, about officers who do not treat the public correctly."

And of the recent upsurge in violent crime also cited by commissioners, Parks invited an inspection of crime trends in the last 30 years--or even the last five.

"You will find a remarkable reduction in crime," he said.

When Parks achieved his goal of becoming the department's top officer in 1997, the department was in a crisis. The police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of four LAPD officers in that case had caused the riots of 1992 and resulted in public pressure on the department to carry out reforms.

A subsequent corruption scandal, centered on the Rampart Division, has put former officers in jail for skimming drugs and money and planting evidence.

Parks' hard-line style in dealing with those issues has won him both praise and condemnation. While he traveled to Washington to meet with top Justice Department officials, he alienated some federal authorities who perceived him as strongly resistant to reforms.

Some Officers See Him as 'Overzealous'

His efforts to enforce internal discipline alienated his own officers, who saw him as "overzealous," in the words of one veteran motorcycle patrolman. Officers saw him as a man who would not listen to counsel from the ranks, who would not back them in a pinch, who wanted to make such a show of punishing wayward officers that no one was entirely safe in being a good, tough street cop.

"It can't possibly get any worse," the motorcycle officer said Tuesday at the 77th Division station in South-Central Los Angeles.

The 11-square-mile precinct has seen 37 murders this year in an eruption of gang violence that threatens to set homicide records.

Another policeman, a 28-year veteran who has spent most of his career in the same precinct, remembers when Parks was a captain there. Despite those ties, the officer was bitter and requested he not be quoted by name.

"When a manager says, verbatim, that morale is not a management problem . . . what direction would you expect things to head?" he asked, comparing the LAPD to Enron. "All the wishes of the officers are stifled. You can only bang your head against a wall so many times."

He went on to call Parks' removal "the first step to turn this department around and make an attempt to give the citizens of Los Angeles what they deserve."

One of the constraints of Parks' command has been a broad blueprint for reform negotiated between the Justice Department and the city of Los Angeles. The consent decree, signed in 2000, laid out hundreds of provisions for conducting internal audits and tracking problem officers as a way to protect civil liberties.

Parks initially opposed the decree, a point Mayor James K. Hahn has frequently noted in his campaign against him. But Parks defended his stance by saying the LAPD already was undertaking many of those reforms--without being told.

Resentment Over Federal Consent Decree

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